SAVING MONEY ON ELECTRICITY (NOTHING TO DO WITH GARDENING)

Okay…Reading about saving on your electricity bill is about exciting as reading the phone book. But if you stick with this through to the end, you will see how our family without a lot of expense, managed to decrease our average monthly electric bills 40% over the span of 4 years and this year alone we currently are using 28% less electricity over last year for the same time period. (Our electricity provider has an excellent customer web app that tracks our performance and our savings.)

WHERE WE CALL HOME
Of course, you need to know where you live and what your expenses are. If you have lived over a year in your house, you have a base by which to compare what you are saving. Nothing encourages more savings than seeing your current efforts resulting in dollars staying in your pocket. If you are new to your  home, call your electric company and see if they have monthly usage information for your residence. If that fails, talk to your neighbors.

I was the first house built on my street, so almost all the new homeowners that followed asked me who I purchased my electricity from and what my average bills were. We were not so lucky, so we learned from the school of hard knocks. August is the hottest time of the year for us and yet despite those soaring temperatures This month we will only pay $75 for our electricity on the average billing plan. Most of the year we pay between $68 and $72 a month for our electricity. This was not always the case; when we first moved into our home our electricity usage averaged $130 to $150 a month over the year. (We live on the edge of the Texas Hill Country in an one story home sitting on a 1/3 of an acre).

EXAMINE YOUR PLAN
Look at your plan and what your provider offers. Just doing this simple step each year can save you money. Providers are always creating new plans and offerings. Some utilities have greater flexibility than other when doing so; just be advised.

We get our electricity through Reliant. We are on the “Reliant Free Weekends 12 plan” which means that ALL our electricity on the weekends is free (NO energy charge applied) from 8:00 PM Friday to 12:00AM Monday. (Note: other utilities may offer programs like this one; ask your provider what is available.) This is a great benefit to us since we both work during the week and we are largely home on the weekends. We are also on the average monthly billing and since the addition of the programmable thermostat, our average monthly bill has never been over $85 and in the early spring months has been as low as $62.

DISCIPLINE IS KEY
In order to be successful you need a plan and you need discipline to stay with the plan. For example, one of the largest chunks of electricity was washing our laundry. Since we have free electricity under our plan all weekend long, we planned and disciplined ourselves to do all our laundry and big electricity usage events from 8:00PM Friday to Sunday at midnight. The old adage of failing to plan is planning to fail holds very true in your electricity conservation efforts.

YOUR LIGHTING MATTERS
Here is a reality; you are spending money every time you turn your lights on. It also seems that turning lights on is far easier than turning them off. One of the first things we did so save on our electric bills was to replace all our incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescent light (CFLs) light bulbs, which were state of the art at the time. By doing this we saw a measurable drop in our bill every month. Now we have the new LED lightbulbs that have entered the market which are 90% more efficient than the incandescent. The other advantage to LEDs is that they do not put out heat (try touching an incandescent bulb after several minutes…you can’t do it).  Yet after hours you can grab the LED and not feel any noticeable warmth. The other advantage beyond their incredible life span, is that LEDs also don’t “flicker” like the CFLs (a common complaint of many sensitive to fluorescent lighting). As their cost comes down and I am now in the process of converting to LED lighting in our house. Some utilities and big box stores are offering point of sale rebates/discounts which make them even more affordable. Contact your utility for information on discounts and rebates.  If affordability is an issue, change your light bulbs out one room at a time from the most used to the least used room. It will make a difference on your bill. My light bulbs have paid for themselves several times over now.

PROGRAMMABLE THERMOSTAT
The best thing we did was install the NEST thermostat, the best tool I could find to help with thermostat discipline (that we were able to get from our utility on a payment plan of $10 a month). The NEST thermostat was easy to install, easy to program, and has saved us quite a bit of money. It makes controlling our thermostat easy and we can even do it from away from our home.  Doing this alone I believe is what has contributed to this year’s 25% decrease in our average monthly bill as all our other conservation practices carried over from the previous year. Normally by this time of the year our average monthly bill creeps up to the $85 threshold. The fact that for the first time this year our bill is just going up to $75 for August tells me that the NEST is working for us.

HOW WE USE OUR NEST
In the summer months (we have pets in the home), we program our NEST thermostat to cool the house to 85 degrees at 6:30 AM in the morning and when we leave for work, and we have the NEST thermostat set cool the house to 75 degrees at 3:30PM so the house is comfortable when we arrive home at 5:30 (with exceptions of Wednesdays when we telecommute). At night, we prefer it a bit cooler when we sleep so we program the thermostat cool the house to 73 degrees from 9:30PM to 5AM.

Note: It has largely been debunked by experts that you can save money by leaving your AC on all day long, or by running a ceiling fan while away will keep your house cool.  Programming your thermostat to turn off while you are away from the home takes usage off the grid during the hottest part of the day when no one is home, and it has been shown that keeping your house cool all day ends up costing you more with your AC units to running all day long to keep the house cool.

NO COST LIFESTYLE CHANGES THAT WILL SAVE YOU MONEY
There are some lifestyle changes you can make (things we do in our home during the hot months) THAT WON’T COST YOU ANY MONEY and yet yield big savings:

  • In the summer months, raise your thermostat by one or two degrees. We raised ours to 75 degrees and find it quite comfortable.
  • Make sure you are changing your AC filter on a regular basis. If your AC is running and running and your house is not cooling, the first thing I would recommend doing is check your filter. It is amazing how a dirty filter can cost you so much money.
  • If you are used to setting your thermostat even lower in the summer, try raising it incrementally over time by one degree. By doing this your body acclimatizes to a new reality and you save money.
  • Avoid boiling on your stove top and avoid using your oven as much as possible. Instead, eat a lot of fresh foods and salads during the week (My wife likes hoagie night and I grill more keeping the heat outside).
  • If you have weekend energy free plans like we do, then cook your large meals on the weekend so all you have to do is reheat your prepared meals on the weekend. If you don’t have an energy plan like ours, do your heavy cooking and baking in the cool of the day.
  • Keep your drapes/blinds/shades closed on the sun side of your house.
  • Run your dishwasher as you go to bed and set it to drip-dry so that the heat and humidity does not impact the living areas while you are using them.
    Close any vents to rooms that you are not using…no sense in cooling or heating them.
  • The following costs a little bit of money up front, but there is a long term payoff – Replace your lightbulbs to LED lighting or CFL lighting. Just by doing this, my average bill dropped $15 a month. Note: Many utilities offer rebates towards the purchases of these bulbs.

AVOID PHANTOM CHARGES
You have many devices in your home that use power silently without your realizing it. For the average home this adds another average $10 to $15 to your bill (depending on home and on the number of devices/appliances). If you can plug them into a power strip and turn them off when not using them, you can potentially save about $10 a month for the average house. It all adds up.

  • Plug your TVs, audio sound systems and computers into power strips and turn them off at the power strip when you are not using them. TVs and computers are large power users, even when they are dormant.
  • Plug all your charging devices into a power strip and turn them off when you are not using them. Even if they are not being used to charge your device, they are still sucking power.
  • Look at all your devices, coffee pots, printers, ROKU, DVD players, Game Consoles, etc. If you can plug these devices into power strips and turn them off at the power strip when you are not using them to save money.

WILL THIS WORK FOR EVERYONE?
Grant you, what we do in our home may not work for everyone, as each home’s dynamic is different (ie. you have children, or you are home all day long). Also, the amount you save will depend on a variety of factors, such as the size of your house, the number of residents, ages of the residents, home usage, and ultimately your dedication to sticking to an energy conservation plan. You may not see the low bills our family sees or the savings we have achieved, however others that I have shared these principles and have adopted a conservation plane are saving money each month, some quite a bit over what they used to pay.  So, maybe this gives you some ideas on how you can help reduce your utility bills. One thing’s for sure, if  you do nothing, you will not see any savings

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CARE AND FERTILIZING YOUR GARDEN USING ORGANIC LIQUID SOLUBLE FERTILIZERS

In my vegetable garden, I still have indeterminate hot season tomatoes that are producing and my peppers, okra and cucumbers are doing well. They are doing well because I hand water them daily in the evening and I applied regimen of a deep soak of fish emulsion/kelp/epson salt solution at the base of my plants with alternating applications of a kelp foliar spray. (I buy all my ingredients at Bloomer’s my local nursery/garden center in Elgin, TX)

Here is a truth: Container and raised bed gardens suck the nutrients out of the soil. So for most of the year I augment my plant’s needs with a solution of fish emulsion, kelp and epsom salts. I will tell you how my recipe and how I use these at the end of this blog, but first let’s discuss why a gardener needs to use both when caring for his garden. Most gardeners know about the macronutrients that are important to their plants health: nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium, magnesium, calcium, and sulfur. On most packages we see them listed in the order of the primary three nitrogen -phosphorous – potassium. However most of those fertilizers do not include the micronutrients that plants need as well in much smaller quantities improving the health growth of your plants and also help your plants stave off garden pests and diseases.

Granular fertilizers are slow to be taken up by the plant, so if you apply granular fertilizer at the first sign of your leaves turning yellow, by the time the plant takes up the nutrients it may well be too late. Liquid soluble fertilizers offer a much more efficient and timely way of getting nutrients to your plants. Plants are capable of taking in the nutrients they need through their leaves as well as their roots. Whereas deep soaks will provide a ready supply yet at a slightly slower up take of nutrients, foliar sprays work quickly to give your plants the micronutrients they need, and often in just the nick of time.

Fish emulsion is an organic water soluble, fast-acting fertilizer that contains about 5% nitrogen 1% phosphorous and 1% potassium.  Fish emulsion is fast acting which means that the plant can use the nitrogen right away.  However because fish emulsion is fast acting in providing quick nutrients to your vegetables this means you will need to apply it ever 2-3 weeks. Note: Fish emulsion does have a pungent fish smell, so I do wear gloves when preparing it so as not to have that smell on me the rest of the day.

Kelp/Seaweed extracts contain small amounts of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, however but not in enough quantities that plant need. What Kelp/Seaweed extracts contain that the plants need are strong concentrations of trace minerals, micronutrients, amino acids, and vitamins essential to plant growth.  In addition kelp/seaweed extract contains many growth hormones which stimulate cell division and larger root systems.

In order to accomplish the optimum results for your plant’s needs, you will need to combine two products to fully provide your plants with the nutrients the plants need. In both instances a solution both fish emulsion and Kelp/Seaweed extracts can be applied as a foliar spray or as a soil soak and Kelp by itself is an excellent way to reduce transplant shock.

THE RECIPE:
I use the following mixture: For each gallon of water: 2 T Kelp, 2 T Fish Emulsion, 1 T Epson Salts.

APPLICATION:
I do a deep soak by pouring this solution in the center of my raised garden bed every two weeks. Sometimes I will alternate the deep soak with foliar application. I primarily like to do a deep soak by pouring this solution in the center of my raise garden bed every two weeks. If you want to do this weekly, you need to make your solution half strength or you run the potential of damaging your plants.

In the dry hot of the late Texas summer I find that the use of fish emulsion as a foliar spray tends to cause leaf burn following the directions on the leave. This is why during this time of the gardening year I use the fish emulsion/Epson salt mixture as a deep soak for my plants one week and I apply the seaweed as a foliar spray the following week. Then I give one week rest and resume the same application cycle again. Remember to spray foliar sprays either early in the morning or late in the evening to avoid evaporation as you spray and also any leaf burn from the hot afternoon sun. It is very important to use recommended rates because these extracts are so potent.

For more information on the products I use

Alaska Fish Fertilizer 5-1-1 Concentrate

Neptune’s Harvest SW136 Organic Seaweed Plant Food

Pennington Epsom Salt, 7-Pound

TREE CARE IN THE HOT AND DRY OF THE SUMMER MONTHS

The rains have long gone, and trees need some additional watering…ESPECIALLY any young trees that were just planted earlier this year. I see so many trees suffering and even dying from lack of watering. This is a costly mistake to let happen. 1. Most HOA’s require a specific number of trees in front of your house, so you could get into the costly expense of having to replace your trees to avoid HOA penalties. 2. Trees when established will help you save cooling your house in the summer lowering your electric bills, and they provide a buffer from the winter winds helping you save on heating. 3. Trees add value to your property value. This is one of the things owners often overlook when considering the resale value of your home.

When watering your trees, you need to concentrate your watering around the drip line. If you don’t know what that is…spray your tree with the hose and watch where the water falls along the perimeter of the tree. Too many people incorrectly water the base of the tree. You need to do deep soaks. I generally give my trees a good deep soak about every 2 weeks in the hot dry weather and that seems to do well. The younger trees or trees less than 2 years of planting and that are still in the process of establishing, I give a deep soaking once a week. This would also be a good time to aerate around the drip line. During the dry times the soil tends to compact which impacts the health of the tree.

A deep soak is achieved best by coiling a drip hose around your tree. If you don’t have a drip hose you need to water at a low pressure.  The objective to a deep soak is to water slowly, dispersing the flow of water to get the water deep down to the trees roots. You cannot achieve this by watering for short periods of time (which can encourage shallow rooting which can lead to more drought damage). Avoid overhead spraying of tree leaves as it is inefficient and causes loss of water to evaporation. Watering at ground level and avoiding throwing water in the air is more efficient, will save you money on your water bill and ultimately do the trees so much better.

Central Texas Vegetable Gardens in August

I still have indeterminate hot season tomatoes that are producing or have fruit maturing on the vine. My peppers, okra and cucumbers are doing well. They are doing well because I hand water them daily in the evening. This past weekend I applied a deep soak of fish emulsion at the base of my plants. Now here is a trick about tomatoes. You CAN get a second life from your healthier tomato plants if you still have them in the ground. This is what I spent time doing on Saturday. For more information on how to do this you can read my blog at Second life for your tomatoes

This is the time of the year that I get out there in the cool of the morning hours and begin to prepare for my fall garden. (I actually garden three gardens, spring/summer, Fall, and Winter. HOWEVER there are certain things that you CAN plant.

This is the time when you can plant the following seed crops in the ground (Beans, cucumber, garlic, potatoes, shallots, summer squash, okra, black-eyed peas, New Zealand and Malabar spinach, winter squash). You can also set out starter plants (Okra, New Zealand or Malabar spinach, summer or winter squash).

You can also begin to plant the following vegetable seeds in seed flats or in the ground. You will want to provide some shade from the hot afternoon sun by building an shade awning. I recommend inexpensive rebar over which you can drape shade cloth. These are some of the plants you can begin to start in flats: Broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, chard, Chinese cabbage, fennel, kale. Toward the later part of August you can begin to plant some of your greens: Collards, lettuce and mustard.

 

Getting second life from your tomato plants:

Three years ago I was on a two hour jaunt to my parents when I heard John Drumgoole, the natural gardener, on the radio. He was talking about how to get a second life of your spring planted tomato plants. What he began to talk about was so interesting I pulled over to the side of the road to take notes. I used what he said for 3 seasons and it works. Note: this only works for semi-determinate and indeterminate tomato plants.

These are my notes:

In mid to July after you have pretty well harvested the last of your spring tomatoes (in the heat of July they are no longer setting fruit) look at your semi-determinate or indeterminate tomato plants. If they are healthy and disease free and are still looking good cut one third off of the top of the plant. Lightly fertilize it with a product like tomato-tone or some other tomato plant friendly fertilizer (you don’t want to use anything heavy in nitrogen). Water regularly (in the heat of July this means every day). In August, repeat again this time cutting the plant back by about 20%. By doing this you are cutting off all the top growth so that the plant is not using a lot of the water to maintain all the top-growth foliage (stressing the plant). This also has the effect of rejuvenating the plant. By time the temperatures dip and the weather cools, fruit will begin to set again in time for a Halloween to Thanksgiving harvest.

 

Summer Tomato Planting tips from the Natural Gardener

Plant fall Tomato transplants under shade cloth. It’s counter-intuitive to plant anything right now, as hot and dry as it is in July, but the idea is to get your Tomato plants big and blooming so those flowers can set fruit as soon as the heat breaks. (Typically, Tomatoes won’t set fruit if the temps are above 90°F.) Be sure to use shade cloth to allow your transplants to acclimate themselves to the heat. Also consider using Plant Success, Biozome, and Maxicrop Seaweed to reduce transplant shock and promote strong roots. Seaweed is also a great anti-stressor for plants. If you keep your plants healthy through the heat, you should have loads of Tomatoes in the fall.

Tomato-growing tip: Keep moisture levels in the soil as even as possible. Tomatoes are tropical plants and they don’t like to be drought stressed. They don’t like to be too wet, either, but definitely don’t let them droop repeatedly. Whether they’re new fall transplants or spring plants that you’re carrying through the summer, consistency of watering is crucial to produce healthy plants and lots of pretty fruit. Among other problems, swings in moisture levels causes Blossom End Rot and Cat-facing.

http://www.naturalgardeneraustin.com/what-to-do-in-July.html

 

 

 

CENTRAL TEXAS GARDENERS…WHAT TO DO IN JULY – Suggestions for Central Texans from the Natural Gardener.

SOW SEEDS
Vegetables: Amaranth, Black Eyed Peas, Corn, Cucumbers, Malabar Spinach, New Zealand Spinach, Okra, Pumpkin, Summer Squash, Winter Squash.

Use the 4th of July holiday as your reminder to plant pumpkins in order to get nice, big Jack o’ Lanterns in time for Halloween!

Fruits: Cantaloupe, Watermelon.

Annuals: Cosmos, Gourds, Morning Glory.

PLANT
Vegetables: Eggplant, Peppers, Tomatoes. (Yes, tomatoes are technically fruits.)

Herbs: Basil, Oregano, Rosemary, Thyme.

Annuals: Blue Daze, Gazania, Geranium, Gomphrena, Marigolds, Periwinkle, Portulaca, Purslane, Zinnia.

Perennials: Black-Eyed Susan, Butterfly Weed, Copper Canyon Daisy, Cupheas, Coreopsis, Shasta Daisy, Ox-Eye Daisy, Four-Nerve Daisy, Daylily, Eupatoriums (including Gregg’s Mistflower), Goldenrod, Kniphofia, Lamb’s Ears, Lantana, Plumbago, Ruellias, Salvias.

Xeric: Agave, Cacti, Nolina, Sotol, Sedums, Yucca.

Grasses: Maiden Grass, Bamboo Muhly, Gulf Coast Muhly, Big Muhly, Weeping Muhly, Mexican Feather Grass, Switchgrass, Inland Sea Oats (likes the shade!), Purple Fountain Grass.

For the full post see:

http://www.naturalgardeneraustin.com/what-to-do-in-July.html